Australian visiting professor Brian Victoria, seen here near an image of a Buddha at the Buddhist Study Center, has written a book concerning the involvement of Buddhists in the Japanese Army before World War II.

‘Holy war’
crosses faiths

A professor reveals warlike aspects
of not only Zen Buddhism,
but of other religions

When Brian Daizen Victoria starts talking about "holy war," it is in the surprising context of Zen Buddhism, traditionally a path to internal peace.

The Asian studies professor and author of "Zen at War" bases his University of Hawaii graduate seminar on his 1997 book that shocked Zen practitioners and scholars and led to a public apology by a major Zen sect in Japan.

He is in demand as a speaker on his revelations of Zen's dark side during World War II, when Buddhist leaders supported Japan's military imperialism and helped warp religious belief and practice into justification for mass killing and inspiration for kamikaze suicide.

But the historian's storytelling is evolving into an exploration of the warlike aspects of all religions. "I'm of the opinion that the 'sacrilizing' of warfare, turning it into a holy enterprise, can be found throughout religions," Victoria said. "What I'm trying to do now is go behind any particular religion to find general tendencies."

"Religion hijacked: the universal characteristics of holy war" is the theme he will expound in an April 1 lecture at the Korean Studies Center, East-West Road. The 3 p.m. talk is open to the public.

His seminar on "Buddhism and War" will resume March 30 at the Buddhist Study Center in Manoa. The 6:30 p.m. classes are open to the public. Victoria, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, is at UH for one semester in the Yehan Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies, a program endowed by a Japanese industrialist.

The impact of Victoria's book resonated beyond Buddhism when the leaders of a major Zen organization in Japan responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack against the United States by comparing their former religious fanaticism to that of Muslim terrorists. The statement from Myoshin-ji Temple credited the book as one impetus for the apology. It said it is important to remember "in the past our nation, under the banner of holy war, initiated a conflict that led to great suffering." It said Buddhist leaders had lent a religious purpose to Japan's invasions, colonizations and taking of lives.

Victoria's view of Zen began as a seeker. He went to Japan in 1961, a recent graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University and a Methodist Church missionary teaching English at a church college in Tokyo.

A conscientious objector, he was attracted by the Zen teaching of compassion and nonviolence. He went on to earn a master's degree in Buddhist studies from Soto Zen-affiliated Komazawa University in Tokyo and entered the sect priesthood, taking training at Eihei-ji monastery. His ordained name, Daizen, means "great meditation."

Meanwhile, he joined anti-Vietnam war protests in Japan. Warnings against that activity by his religious superiors led Victoria to look into the writings of Zen priest Ichikawa Hakugen about Zen influence during World War II. He dug into Japan military archives, writings by Buddhist leaders and recollections of aging monks.

He said his "eureka moment" came when he found the reference that "the Zen sect furnished the warrior spirit with its ideological and spiritual foundation" in the Japan Army Field Code. He found instructions to officers on how to apply religious principles to shape the ideal warrior, who was taught that there is no difference between life and death. "This was the spirit that was inculcated into the Japanese soldier, that he was dead before he left for the battlefield," said the author.

"It was a shock," Victoria recalled, comparing his reaction to the disillusionment of the hippie generation that "concluded that we are the bad guys."

"It's time for us to get over the good guys/bad guys labels," he said. Since 9/11, "we are all ready to see it as an Islamic problem, and it is all too difficult to see it as our problem.

"In the West we have defined ourselves out of believing that we do holy war. Today, we call it a 'just war.' If we are honest, we need to admit that 'just war' is an alternate title, and holy war is very much part of the Western civilization today."

Hawaii is a launching pad for Victoria, who has been invited by several universities to speak on his book and its sequel, "Zen War Stories."

During the UH spring break he will lecture at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of San Francisco and the University of Montana. On May 25 he will begin a month-long lecture series in Japan.

"Zen at War" rings a bell with many Westerners who entered Zen practice for the same peace-seeking reason as Victoria. Zen masters with American followers, including D.T. Suzuki and Haku'un Yasutani, who came to Hawaii often to teach in the 1960s and 1970s, were revealed in a new, unwelcome light.

"Yasutani was presented as the epitome of the enlightened Zen master. When I revealed he supported militarism and was an anti-Semite, it was a shock to his direct and indirect disciples," Victoria said. "Zen emphasized that enlightenment passes from the mind of master to disciple. The question becomes, Is it possible for that person to transmit enlightenment?"

Retired Hongwanji Buddhist minister Alfred Bloom said: "At first it was something hard to swallow, and there was much discussion in magazines. But it is fairly well resolved. He has more information. ... The Zen people were not the only ones to cooperate fully with the government at that time."

Victoria's lectures are peppered with quotes about mankind finding divine justification for war.

He might not shock his audience with this passage from the Quran: "Slay unbelievers wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places they drove you from. ... Fight them until idolatry is no more and God's religion is supreme."

But the bulk of war references are Christian, a trend that Victoria said began in 312 when Emperor Constantine used Christ's name on his shields and the bishops allowed their people to join his army, "selling the soul of one key element of Christianity: peace," Victoria said.

His Christian sources include Martin Luther, whose treatise "Secular Authority" affirms: "It is a Christian act, and an act of love, confidently to kill, rob and pillage the enemy. Such happenings must be considered as sent of God, that he may now and then cleanse the land and drive out knaves."

More timely are the words of an American commander about the 1993 capture of a Muslim terrorism financier: "I knew my god was bigger than his, I knew my god was a real god and his was an idol, but I prayed, 'Lord, let us get that man.'" U.S. Army Gen. Jerry Boykin, now deputy Secretary of Defense for intelligence, more recently told an Oregon congregation, "George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States; he was appointed by God."

Victoria said: "In America, I'm accused of being anti-Christian. I think I'm being fair because I take them all on; I'm critical of all religions.

"I'm trying to show there is a current that continues to flow through Western culture to this day."

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